Russia not so much a (re)rising superpower as a skilled strategic spoiler



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Much of the interest in Russia centres around its experienced and skilled political leader in Vladimir Putin, speaking here with Donald Trump.
Reuters

Alexey D Muraviev, Curtin University

Russia keeps posing a massive intelligence puzzle to the West: it is never as weak as we may want it to be, nor is it as strong as we fear it may be.

So, how can we classify Russia as an international power? It is not the Soviet Union reincarnated, so it is not a reborn counterpoint to US global supremacy. Nor does it intend to be. But it remains a major strategic spoiler of the US’ ambitions to retain its rules-based global order.

Moscow is trying to strengthen its relationship with like-minded major powers. China is one of Russia’s comrades-in-arms, although not a formal ally. China and Russia are not forming any sort of anti-Western/anti-US alliance; both great powers have their own national agendas.

Over the past ten years, Russia and China have developed very close military ties, but their economic relationship remains uneven and quite low on the common strategic agenda. They are de facto engaged in soft competition across Central Asia and the Asia-Pacific.

But their intention to change the status quo in support of their ambitions aligns with their security and strategic agendas, at least for now. Just like China, Russia seeks to maximise its strategic autonomy by aggressively fending off any perceived challenges to its national interests or sovereignty.

The time cannot be better. US President Donald Trump keeps puzzling allies by reversing major political decisions of previous administrations, while prioritising an inward-looking approach to running his country. And he is no match for Vladimir Putin in terms of experience, charisma, domestic popularity and global influence.




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Try a simple experiment: search any publication about Russia published by the Australian media and try to find an article on anything Russia-related that does not have a reference to Putin. We see in Putin a manifestation of Russia’s ambitions; its political, military, economic and even sport successes and failures; defence of traditional values and criticisms of the Western way of life.

Putin wants for Russia a “place under the sun”: that is, dominance over the immediate neighbourhood combined with Russia’s recognised right to have interests in other parts of the world. The big question is: does modern Russia have what it takes to be a global superpower? The reality is there is no definitive answer to that.

On the one hand, Russia possesses key elements of a superpower: it is self-sufficient when it comes to natural resources and it is an energy superpower; it is a space power with a developed sovereign capability; it has a world-class scientific capability; it is the second-biggest military superpower in the world behind the US. Finally, it has global ambitions and a global agenda.

On the other hand, like China, Russia does not have a civilisational agenda – a competitive political model that could be an alternative to Western liberalism based on a free-market economy. After all, the Cold War was a clash of competitive socioeconomic systems supported by geopolitical and military-strategic competition. There is none of that today.

Second, Russia does not have the economic might of China and its intertwined economic interaction with the US. The Russian economy has suffered a great deal from the tight sanctions regime implemented after the Ukraine crisis, and is only beginning now to show signs of recovery.

That is not to say Russia has lost the economic means to support itself and its global ambitions. Over the past two years, it has achieved a major breakthrough in exporting grain and other agricultural produce, making it one of the top-three foreign currency earners. In 2017 alone, Russia earned some US$20.5 billion by exporting agricultural produce.

Russia’s energy exports also remain high. In 2017, Russian energy giant Gazprom generated total revenue of US$103.6 billion. This year’s revenue is expected to reach US$108 billion. In Europe alone, Gazprom controls 34.7% of its energy market, thus making it an important element of Russia’s regional geoeconomics.




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The Russian defence sector plays its traditional role of both earning much-needed cash and furthering Russia’s geopolitical agenda. In 2017, Russian arms exports were worth US$17 billion, while the total portfolio of foreign orders of Russian armaments and military equipment is about US$45 billion, effectively retaining the number-two position in global arms sales.

Still, Russia has no means of global economic expansionism. It is desperately seeking new economic opportunities and partnerships with other countries that do not want all the power focused on the US. This gives China a strategic lead because of its diversified extensive economic partnerships with the US, Europe and Asia.

Yet it would be premature to crown China as the sole superpower rival to the US. Unlike Russia, China clearly lacks political and diplomatic experience – the ability to play complex games on a global chessboard.

As an incoming superpower with global ambitions but limited experience in great power politics, China studies carefully the Soviet and Russian experiences and leaves Russia to fight all the major fights at international forums. North Korea and the South China Sea are among the few exceptions where the Chinese show strategic activism.

Apart from its extensive diplomatic experience, China also needs Russia’s strategic nuclear and conventional military might.

Under Putin, the Russian military managed to close the capability gap with the most advanced Western militaries and transformed itself from a large, under-equipped and understaffed army into an effective, highly motivated and battle-hardened force. Putin has given the once-cash-strapped military machine a massive financial boost – and, more importantly, full political support.

Between 2013 and 2017, Russia landed in the world’s top-three nations on defence expenditure, just behind the US and China. In Europe, Russia has remained the single largest defence spender and buyer of major combat systems.

From 2012 until early 2017, the Russian military received 30,000 new and upgraded armaments and items of heavy military equipment. The Syria campaign and Russia’s ability to exercise strategic reach has once again made the military factor supported by active diplomacy one of the key determinants of successful realising its national strategic agenda.

In short, Russia is a major global power in outlook and reach, locked in a values-based confrontation with the West. But it still lacks all elements of a developed superpower.

The ConversationBut what it does most effectively is play the role of a strategic spoiler in times when the world is gradually accepting a new international configuration with a suite of established and emerging great powers that would dominate a future world order.

Alexey D Muraviev, Associate Professor of National Security and Strategic Studies, Curtin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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The US, Russia and China: a twisted tale of personal ego, profound mistrust and foolish nationalism



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In Russia and China, Donald Trump now faces two centres of power that are no longer willing or feel the need to comply with America’s interests and priorities.
Reuters/Carlos Barria

Joseph Camilleri, La Trobe University

Alarm bells are ringing a mere three months into Donald Trump’s presidency. The two global flashpoints, Syria and North Korea, are worrying enough. The Conversation

More troubling still are America’s relations with Russia and China. These are now mired in angst, uncertainty and mutual suspicion. They underlie the failure to create a viable system of crisis prevention and crisis management.

Global power shift

Trump’s first 100 days as president have dramatically demonstrated this failure. For all the rhetoric about “making America great again”, Trump is rapidly discovering that the US has limited capacity to impose its will on the rest of world.

The trend is visible everywhere – in international trade and finance, diplomacy, and numerous conflicts around the world.

In Russia and China, the US now faces two centres of power that are no longer willing to comply with America’s interests and priorities.

Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has been busy reasserting its influence after years of humiliation following the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Starting from a low base, China has sustained over the last three decades the most remarkable rate of economic growth in modern history. Now it is seeking to exert the political influence commensurate with its new economic status.

America’s relative political decline goes back to its military defeat in Vietnam. Temporarily obscured by the end of the Cold War, it became fully apparent during the Bush and Obama years. But Trump is the first president to have run on a platform openly stating that the US is in decline and promising to reverse the trend.

Militarism not isolationism

In his inauguration speech, studded by more references to “America” than any inauguration speech in US history, Trump vowed:

We will make America strong again. We will make America proud again. We will make America safe again. And we will make America great again.

The nationalist card – the one unifying plank of his otherwise chaotic discourse before and since his election – is meant to strike a chord with the many disenchanted Americans hankering for a “golden age” that has long since passed. Trump now faces the immense challenge of delivering on this pledge despite intractable problems at home and abroad.

On the international stage, he has chosen to rely on showing off America’s unmatched military might. This position is supported by some of the most powerful voices in the US military and political establishment.

Soon after taking office, Trump gave the military expanded authority in the conduct of operations against Islamic State in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. In support of the Saudi bombing campaign against Houthi forces in Yemen, the US carried out 70 airstrikes in March alone. This is more than twice the number for all of 2016.

In the first two weeks of April, the Trump administration:

Yet the utility of military power is diminishing. As one centre of power declines and another rises, new faultlines and tensions emerge, and with them new uncertainties. This helps explain why the US finds it so difficult to set a clear policy direction for relations with Russia and China.

The Russia conundrum

In the case of Russia, Trump’s task has been greatly complicated by the findings of the US intelligence community that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 US election.

Hoping to deflect attention from his campaign’s links with Russia, Trump has allowed relations with Russia to continue on their downward slide. Perhaps it was never his intention to reset the US-Russia relationship.

In any case, he is under considerable pressure from his most senior security advisers to act tough with Russia. Almost certainly, he failed to appreciate that his actions and statements on Syria would provoke Putin’s fury.

The end result is clear. In Trump’s words, US relations with Russia have reached “an all-time low”. Not surprisingly, he has now reversed his previous position on NATO, and announced the alliance is “no longer obsolete”.

Russia, for its part, remains unbending in its support of the Assad government in Syria. It has mercilessly denounced the illegality of the US missile attack, and used its veto power to block a UN Security Council resolution condemning Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for his use of chemical weapons.

And now Russia has forced the US to accept a significant watering down of the UN Security Council resolution condemning North Korea’s latest missile launch.

Russia has been busy reasserting its global influence under the leadership of Vladimir Putin (left).
Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

China’s rise

During his election campaign, Trump repeatedly lambasted China for its currency manipulation and threatened to apply tough restrictions on Chinese exports. Before and immediately after his election he flaunted America’s commitment to Taiwan’s security, and challenged China’s military build-up in the South China Sea.

Yet the tone has since changed markedly. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the US became an occasion to discuss differences on trade and agree to a 100-day plan for reducing the current US trade deficit with China.

At least in public, Xi stuck to his script about the virtues of bilateral co-operation. Trump presented the talks as forming the basis for “an outstanding relationship”.

The North Korea crisis has exposed the limits of US power. Neither increased US economic sanctions nor the threat of military action are likely to force the North Korean regime into submission.

The US needs China’s help to have any chance of reining in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. China’s response has been to increase pressure on North Korea while issuing a stern warning to both parties.

And so, the relationship remains at best unpredictable. As much as China and the US need each other, the hawks in the Trump administration – and there are many – will not easily abandon their plans to contain China, challenge its claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea, and maintain the US military’s pre-eminence in the region.

However, none of this will halt China’s rise.

What does the future hold?

The months ahead are less than promising. The use and threat of force will do nothing to resolve any of the longstanding conflicts in the Middle East or east Asia.

The projection of military muscle and modernisation of nuclear arsenals are far more likely to produce greater local and regional instability, and heighten the risk of miscalculation from any of the three major centres of power.

Trump and Putin lead countries that hold some 14,000 nuclear weapons, or close to 95% of global stockpiles. These arsenals cast a shadow over US-Russian security, which seems likely to darken with the advent of new technologies and rising levels of mistrust and suspicion.

Pursuing “America First” or “Russia First” policies in conditions of such mutual vulnerability is an exercise in futility.

A more profitable course for these three centres of power is to recognise each other’s legitimate interests, expand the opportunities for economic and diplomatic co-operation, and develop a co-ordinated approach in the management of actual and potential flashpoints.

To bear fruit, such efforts need to have solid foundations – in particular decisive steps to eliminate nuclear weapons, enhance the effectiveness of international law, and strengthen the UN’s capacity for conflict management and peace-building.


Professor Camilleri will explore these issues in depth at a keynote lecture to be delivered at St Michael’s on Collins, Melbourne, on May 9 and 16.

Joseph Camilleri, Emeritus Professor of International Relations, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Australia: Tony Abbott Promises to Shirtfront Vladimir Putin


One does have to wonder just how serious Tony Abbott’s comments can be taken, especially this one about ‘shirtfronting’ Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Is this a core promise or just spruiking for the camera – will there be some video record of the shirtfronting, because without it I would find it difficult to believe it has happened.